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Adventures in Ubuntu 11.10: Font size

I’ll be the first to admit that this blog hasn’t seen a lot of updates lately. You know, for the last year and a bit.

But the truth is I simply fell out of practice with writing, and by extension, writing on Linux. I haven’t been writing on anything, you see, which pretty much puts writing on Linux out of the question. For this blog to exist, writing, as it were, must be done somewhere, preferably with that somewhere being at least near Linux.

Recently, however, I took up the whole “writing” thing again, and figured, well, if I’m doing this, I may as well write on Linux. After all, I was halfway there as it was.

And so, just barely managing to stop myself from uttering the words “what could possibly go wrong?”, I stuck Ubuntu 11.10 (“Oneiric Ocelot”) on a USB stick, stuck the stick into an old HP Mini 2133, and stuck Ubuntu on the hard drive.

Surprisingly little went wrong. I was even impressed at how the Broadcom wireless drivers – once the bane of any Linux novice’s first transition to free software – were quietly downloaded before the installation had even begun. The install was quick, smooth, and most importantly, pretty.

With very little struggle I managed to get Ubuntu up and running and get this party, as it were, started. After juggling files and fonts for a bit I realized that everything was rather tiny on the netbook’s high-resolution screen. Switching to a lower resolution looked awful, so I decided to increase the font size instead.

This is a relatively simple task in most, if not all, popular operating systems. Even during my first experiences with Ubuntu, I didn’t have to search much to find the option. No, it was in a pretty obvious place – “Appearances,” I think it was? – and simple to modify.

So I found myself in quite the position of embarrassment when, despite Ubuntu’s (relatively) new fancy-pants dashboard with its impossibly-simple-to-use search bar, I couldn’t find the option. I smacked the side of my head a few times, hoping to jostle the past few years’ accumulated *nix knowledge into finding a solution. And indeed it did. I opened up a browser and asked Google what to do next.

The consensus on the Internet was that the reason I couldn’t find the option to do something so incredibly simple as changing the font size was because, in fact, there is no option in a vanilla Ubuntu 11.10 install. For a moment I felt a small degree of claustrophobia as I became aware of the user preferences shrinking all around me, threatening to close me in with their idiot-proofing lockdowns of obscenely simple options. But then I remembered that this was Linux I was dealing with, and Linux, no matter what the flavor, is anything if not free. And indeed, wherever the problem was recorded, a solution was offered:

sudo apt-get install gnome-tweak-tool

Trying not to think about how stupid this was, I focused instead on how impressively shiny Ubuntu had become while opening up a terminal to run the aforementioned command.

The terminal was more than happy to help me on my epic quest to make the fonts a bit bigger, but first it had to download 80MB of archives.

When it had finished packing my system full of who-knows-what, a new icon was available on the dashboard. It was labeled Advanced Settings. I guess wanting to change my font size makes me some kind of incredible power user.

I know this experience doesn’t have much to do with writing, but I’m seriously wondering if continuing this blog with Ubuntu & Unity is worth it. I’m beginning to get the same feeling I got during my brief time with OS X – that I, as a user, am a bumbling idiot unworthy of changing even the simplest settings on my own machine. I know this can probably be rectified by using a different window manager, but I also know that Ubuntu, as a community project, is responsible for whatever’s available on a vanilla install. Choosing to leave out basic system settings on a fresh install… worries me.

I’m not too concerned with my own computer – I know I can get it up and running again the way I want it, and get back to discussing writing software. But I am definitely concerned with the direction Ubuntu seems to be headed towards.

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How Ubuntu didn’t destroy my MacBook

This time, anyway.

In the past few days I’ve bitten the bullet and installed Linux on my primary machine. Before I’d only been dipping my toe in Ubuntu (and its close friend, Linux Mint) by way of virtual machines. But now I’m positively swimming in it. Swimming, and only occasionally treading water.

Why was I so hesitant to install Ubuntu? My reasons are as follows:

  1. Lazy.
  2. Too chicken.
  3. Pretty sure I’ve seen “triple-booting” listed as a symptom of madness.

But most importantly: 4. Last time I tried that, Ubuntu possessed my MacBook and transmuted it into something demonic.

The Ubuntu of yesteryear

When Linux was still – to me at least – new (and, well, not shiny) I decided to install Ubuntu on my MacBook. This was Ubuntu 8.04 or 8.10, I’m not sure which. Either way it was a huge mistake.

The screen was squished, the mouse impossible to use, and the brightness totally unadjustable. The wireless card was a hopeless case, and the graphics drivers even more so. I think I remember the fans not working, either, though that might be the memory’s tendency to dramatize. It was, in short, a disaster, turning a once-tolerable laptop into a blindingly bright and blisteringly hot deathbox.

Since the incident, I’ve been far more cautious about what I install Ubuntu on. This may seem a strange idea to some people, especially those new to Linux. “What, you don’t install it on every machine you touch?” I hear you asking. No. It’s unstable, it’s dangerous, and above all it is ugly.

There, I said it. I like brown, but really – too much brown.

But then Ubuntu 10.04 happened.

The Ubuntu of today

Knowing full well what I was getting into (this is always a lie when it comes to computers) I had my MacBook hooked up to an external monitor, an external mouse, an external keyboard, and an external drive. If there were any chances being taken, they weren’t here.

And then it worked beautifully. That’s probably some kind of irony, but I was too busy wondering what the hell just happened to categorize it.

Out-of-the-box: Touchpad support, button support, graphics support. It took only the installation of one single other package to be able to adjust brightness. There aren’t any fan problems, the wireless card worked after plugging my MacBook directly into a router and downloading the drivers (System -> Administration -> Hardware Drivers). It is mind-blowing. (Oh, and it looks like a real operating system these days, so that’s always a plus.)

So what I’m saying here is this: if you have a MacBook of any kind and you’ve been afraid to Linux it up, don’t be. Find your MacBook model in this list and be amazed at what Ubuntu can do these days.

The Ubuntu of tomorrow

Okay, so this has been a terribly optimistic post – possibly because my head is still reeling at the amount of MacBook support that appeared seemingly out of thin air in the past year. But there’s still work to be done.

For one thing, the touchpad is… weird. Not much more weird than it is running Boot Camp for Windows, but still weird. It’s extremely sensitive, but if I use traditional mouse utilities to decrease the sensitivity even a little it detects only one tap out of five. And supposedly Ubuntu shuts off your trackpad whenever you’re typing, but this is only true if you’re typing without any breaks whatsoever, and I can’t find a way to customize the wait time between “touchpad off” and “touchpad o– hey, where’d that paragraph go?”

For another, the battery life sucks. I can’t figure it out. Especially since I can dim the screen in Ubuntu far more than I can in Windows. Go figure?

Still, it’s a comfortable experience with an external mouse and the touchpad shut off. And that’s good enough for me – I’ve moved from virtualizing Ubuntu in Windows to virtualizing Windows in Ubuntu. It’s not my OS of choice when I’m going mobile, but if I’m just sitting plugged in somewhere, hell yeah Ubuntu.

In summary, thanks Ubuntu for being awesome. Now I can get back to writing!